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How should Maryland handle its opioid settlements? We need to talk about it. | READER COMMENTARY

Albert Smith, shown here in September, underwent outpatient addiction treatment provided by Gaudenzia during 2020. Smith says he was addicted to a number of drugs, including opioids after he was prescribed painkillers for his avascular necrosis.  A $26 billion settlement between the three biggest U.S. drug distribution companies and drugmaker Johnson & Johnson and thousands of states and municipalities that sued over the toll of the opioid crisis is certainly significant, but it is far from tying a neat bow on the tangle of still unresolved lawsuits surrounding the epidemic.

Within the next four months, the Maryland Board of Public Works will have to vote on whether to settle all opioid claims with the three largest distributors of these drugs and manufacturer Johnson & Johnson. It will directly impact county and municipal government claims when it does. Discussion among the stakeholders is sorely needed (”4 companies on verge of settling US opioid lawsuits,” July 20).

Other states have had robust discussions with local stakeholders and ultimately concluded that most of the money should go to local governments. For instance, North Carolina recently reached an agreement whereby 85% of settlement funds go to local governments with 15% to the state. In the same time period, Wisconsin decided to give 70% of funds to local governments, and 30% to the state. The rationale has been straightforward: opioids have caused most of their damage at the local level. In Maryland, this is certainly true. The real damage of opioid abuse — beyond that to individuals and their families — has been an overwhelming impact on schools, police, fire, rescue, detention centers, health departments, social services and local neighborhoods. Additionally, unlike the Maryland local governments which filed suits to pave the way for settlements and recoveries, the state of Maryland has not participated in the arduous and expensive (and still ongoing) multi-district litigation of the past four years. Nearly every Maryland county and many of its municipalities have carried that burden.

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On Aug. 2, we asked the state of Maryland to consider a split of settlement funds, with 85% going to the local governments and 15% going to the state. The funds would be earmarked for opioid abatement purposes so that a repeat of the state’s questionable spending response from the 1998 tobacco settlement would not recur. We still have not gotten a response to our proposal. Since the announcement of the settlements, the state of Maryland has not responded to requests for further discussion regarding how settlement funds will be allocated. Not engaging with the local governments would result in the state receiving and controlling 85% of the funds with only 15% going directly to local governments, making it one of the worst state/local allocations in the country for local governments.

It is unclear whether local governments will agree to settle their claims, especially without a meaningful commitment from the state to ensure local governments receive the vast bulk of the funds directly. Baltimore, for instance, is showing signs that it may not participate and instead will present its case to a city jury with damages far in excess of what the settlement offers. If local government support for the national settlement evaporates, the total monies received to Maryland (combined state and localities) can shrink from $502 million to $276 million, per the dictates of the settlement agreement.

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Meanwhile, opioid deaths are on the rise again. As The Baltimore Sun pointed out recently, deaths from opioid prescriptions are once again exceeding deaths from heroin. Many in the public may have tired of the problem but the problem has not tired of claiming victims. The state needs to engage with counties and municipalities. Time is not on our side.

D. Bruce Poole, Hagerstown and Cheryl Priest Ainsworth, Los Angeles, California

The writers are attorneys representing Washington, Allegany, St. Mary’s and Carroll counties as well as municipalities including Cumberland, Frostburg, Forest Heights and Upper Marlboro in the national opioid litigation.

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